Beyond the Silver Sea 'Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab' (2015)
“Because everything made sense, no-one ever asked if there had ever been anything that didn’t make sense. But it didn’t matter because, surely, if it hadn’t made sense, it didn’t make sense to believe that it ever existed.”
The malformed lovechild of x and y. Like so-and-so on such-and-such yesteryear drug. Idle comparisons are catnip for amateur musicologists, and generally to be avoided, but what to do when faced with an album as richly referential as Beyond the Silver Sea, the sophomore set from Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab?
Sit back and enjoy yourself, that’s what. Half the fun is figuring out over the course of an hour what main Labmen Stu Kidd and Joe Kane’s record collections must look like. The other half comes from the joyous way they ping from one musical planet to another - mid-song, mid-verse, whenever the mood strikes - all the while remaining in orbit around the solar fulcrum of Adam Smith’s characteristically brilliant storytelling.
Smith - himself a prolific songwriter and artist par excellence - is a long-time conceptual collaborator of Kane’s. Here, he tells the story of Max, a ‘Sense Factory’ worker who spends his days ‘making sense of stray ephemera that hadn’t made sense before.’ After a vision of the mysterious ‘Silver Sea’ instils in him an appreciation of the power of unreality, Max undergoes a Damascene conversion, throwing off the shackles of social conformity that he might find a less cosseted but ‘truer’ way to exist.
In the grand tradition of eccentric dystopian fiction, the story tackles themes of urban oppression and techno-centric bureaucracy, executed with Lovecraftian prose (‘time vehicle’ instead of ‘time machine’) and a smattering of the sort of hyper-logical, linguistic knot-tying wit familiar to fans of Douglas Adams.
Bubbling under the narration is another treat for influence-spotters: musical vignettes that pastiche library-music iterations of classic pop. When, for instance, our hero goes back to mid-sixties London, we hear a litigation-proof take on Whatcha Gonna Do About It. Baby You’re a Rich Man (‘The Sense Factory’) and Cabinessence (‘…Something Else’) also get cheeky looks-in.
Styling these vignettes after the soundtrack to a ropy low-budget documentary on the Sixties is a swingin’ idea, further ramping up the meta preoccupations of an album which is - you come to realize - the very ‘time vehicle’ of which it speaks.
It’s the stellar song-smithery that really takes the listener Beyond the Silver Sea. Psychedelic pop wasn’t born in Glasgow but it’s enjoying semi-retirement there. I’m telling anyone who’ll listen: Dr. Cosmo’s Tape Lab make a Scottish sound. They might not use it to sell whisky to Americans, but they should. It’s subtle, and yes, partly down to the faintly-detected dipthongs and suprasegmentals particular to the accent, but there’s a certain dinnae-ken-whit about it that’s much harder to define. It’s there in Teenage Fanclub and Beta Band. BMX Bandits have it in spades, as does Bandits alumnus Kidd. Paul Morley would probably call it ‘a brooding pop sensibility’ or something. This stuff is peculiar to the west of Scotland, and although it shares commonalities with its more famous west coast counterpart, Glaswegian pop-psych is liable to veer suddenly off-course with a jolting cadence, before returning you to familiar territories.
Those territories include the heavy psychedelic blues of Blossom Toes’ second album (‘Dr. Chester’s Pleasure’); Arthur-period Kinks (‘Face of Another’); and even the rock-spiritual vibe of Pacific Ocean Blue (‘The Stars My Destination’). The best moments are when the influences come thick and fast in a single song, as on ‘The Storehouse of Fools’ which starts out like Gudbuy t’Jane and morphs briefly into Suffragette City before Wild Honey-era Beach Boys sees things home. ‘Pie, Mash & Liqor’ is an unabashed style parody of Chas & Dave and a supremely enjoyable two minutes of music for it.
Amongst the self-aware nods to vintage sounds is some Grade A pop music. ‘City & the Stars’ and ‘In Lieu of Something Better’ possess all the attributes songwriters hanker after: infectious melodies, pin-sharp harmonies and uplifting progressions. With its tidy cocktail licks and cod-muzak setting, ‘Time Enough for Love’ is a lovely song, unencumbered by the archness and irony that afflicts much 21st Century art. ‘The Mirrors Reflection’ is another gem amongst gems.
That Kane, Kidd and Smith have realized a power-pop sci-fi concept album at all in 2015 is remarkable. The fact it’s such a treat for the ears from start to finish borders on the miraculous. Word on the street is, Sugarbush Records plan to release their equally excellent debut album Ever Evolving Lounge on vinyl later this year which is good news for popsike fans everywhere.
Review made by Nic Denholm/2015
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